The Closest Precedent to Trump’s Taiwan Phone Call Almost Sparked a War
The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis demonstrates how bad little screw-ups can get
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
More than 21 years ago, Taiwanese Pres. Lee Teng-hui visited the United States to give a speech at Cornell University. U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton, under intense pressure from Congress and a Taiwan lobbying push to grant Lee a visa, caved.
Within months, America and China plunged into their most serious crisis since the 1960s.
China began firing rockets into the ocean, staging naval maneuvers and exercising for an invasion. Two U.S. carrier battle groups led by the USS Independence and USS Nimitz muscled into the region, the latter which transited the Taiwan Strait.
While these moves pushed China to back down, it took years for diplomats to patch things up, and led Clinton in 1998 to openly rule out support for Taiwanese independence in the “three no’s.”
Fast forward to 2016, and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump set off diplomatic sirens in Beijing after a Dec. 2 phone call with Taiwanese Pres. Tsai Ing-wen — possibly the first time an American president or president-elect has spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979 when the United States broke off relations in exchange for recognizing China.
“The two briefly exchanged views on affairs in Asia,” Tsai’s office said in a statement. “President Tsai hopes to step up bilateral interactions and connections and to establish closer co-operative relations.”
The Trump transition did not respond until after the Financial Times broke news of the call, and the team did not inform the White House in advance, according to the paper. It’s hard to sum up the implications more succinctly than Evan Medeiros, an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group who spoke to the Times.
“Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative,” Medeiros said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged a formal protest and warned that Trump’s call could damage the “political foundation of China-U.S. relations.” But China is also keeping its options open. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office described the call as a “petty” move by Tsai, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to a “shenanigan by the Taiwan side.”
The consequences are likely longer term:
“Interesting how the U.S. sells billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call,” Trump stated on Twitter.
It certainly is interesting. While it’s strange that the United States sells arms to Taiwan but U.S. presidents and president-elects won’t — until now — talk to the head of state, it’s because there’s a complicated diplomatic dance behind it.
First, some explanation. China’s Communist Party sees Taiwan as a rogue province since the Kuomintang decamped for the island at the end of the brutal Chinese Civil War. Taiwan has not made a formal declaration of independence, but Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party is considered to be the more pro-independence of the country’s two major parties — though Tsai and the party are also pragmatic.
Now enter the United States, which does not have a formal defense treaty with Taiwan but does sell weapons, and has backed it up in the face of Chinese threats as in 1996.
Until Trump and Tsai’s phone call, diplomatic relations were conducted at a lower protocol level, and Taiwanese diplomacy in the United States channel through unofficial missions, not embassies.
So why all the rigmarole?
U.S. strategy has signaled for years to Beijing and Taipei that it will most likely resort to military force to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. At the same time, the strategy has depended on America not formally recognizing Taiwan’s government. Yes, it’s strange. But doing so or even hinting in that direction could embolden Taiwan’s pro-independence politicians, anger China and plunge the region to the brink of war.
There are obvious problems with this strategy. It doesn’t resolve the 67-year-old dispute over Taiwan, and the plausible threat of U.S. military force still encourages China to plan and structure its military with the United States in mind as potential foe.
Meanwhile, the United States and China have agreed not to disturb the issue, as all parties basically concur that the risks are not worth it. But you could reasonably believe it’s the best of a lot of bad options as it prods China into seeking reunification through economic integration. And at least there isn’t a war.
But this approach has its critics — and Trump’s Taiwan call reflects conflicts among American foreign policy advisers over how to deal with China’s rise.
On one side are neoconservative supporters of a more hawkish strategy in dealing with a growing, authoritarian and increasingly regressive China in favor of democratic Taiwan. This approach also interprets China as acting in zero-sum terms.
John Bolton, a Trump adviser and secretary of state contender, argued in a 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed that U.S. ambiguity toward Taiwan is an obstacle to deterring China from expanding into the contested South China Sea, where China has built airfields and placed artillery on artificial islands.
Thus, the United States should climb a “ladder of escalation,” Bolton wrote, culminating in “inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America … and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition.”
“Beijing’s leaders would be appalled by this approach, as the U.S. is appalled by their maritime territorial aggression,” Bolton added. “China must understand that creating so-called provinces risks causing itself to lose control, perhaps forever, of another so-called province.”
Curiously, Bolton visited Trump Tower on Dec. 2.
Opposite the neoconservatives are realists who see a confrontation with China as too dangerous to risk, particularly given the destructive power of modern weapons. Realists such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger are also less prone to see China’s rise as a threat to be solved than as an unsolvable problem to be managed.
In other words, you’d be stark-raving mad to want a military confrontation with China — which might defeat you in a regional conflict, though not in a global one. But you still need the planes, ships and bases in the region to deter China from taking risks.
“A conflict with modern weapons might exceed the devastation of the First World War and leave no winners,” Kissinger told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview published in November 2016. “Hence in the modern period, adversarial countries must become partners and cooperate on a win-win basis.”
That also means working with China economically, and supporting free trade, and encouraging Beijing to work on its so-called maritime Silk Road across the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. If China keeps growing its economy — an increasingly tricky proposition — and secures its goals, then it will be less hardline on the South China Sea.
At least, that’s the theory.
But that runs counter to Trump’s embrace of protectionism and his boasts of a looming trade war with China. What to expect next depends on Beijing, which is still observing Trump closely, and whether the phone call foreshadows a Bolton-esque “ladder of escalation” in 2017 — and a potential rupture of relations — or a revert to the status quo.
Favoring the status quo — “This breach of protocol and custom is not unprecedented,” Michael Green wrote at Foreign Policy.” In 1980–1981, the incoming Reagan administration promised to renormalize relations with Taiwan and then invited senior Taiwanese officials to the official inaugural celebrations. Beijing was livid.”
Then again, let’s say you’re in charge of planning for the Chinese military, which has narrowed its military gap since the 1990s at sea and in the air. You might want to test Trump soon after he takes office.